Sant wa? The importance of names in Senegal

Gaya Morris - Senegal


November 8, 2009

Its pretty likely that upon arrival as a guest or even a visitor in a Senegalese home, you will be given a new name. The head of the household, usually the most elderly woman, will probably name you after someone very dear to her, or even herself. In Dakar I was Astou, Astou deux to  be precise (Astou number two), and here in Sebikotane I am Adja Adama Ndoye. The trouble is that Adjaa also happens to be the name of my host sister, so whenever my host mother calls me I’m not sure which one of us she’s calling and we usually both answer. This name also, coincidentally, sounds very similar to a constantly heard expression “aycha!” – which would translate to something like ‘vas-y’ in French or ‘go on’ in English. So basically I feel like I here my name called everywhere, constantly, all the time. Oh, and I also apparently don’t pronounce it correctly, which just adds to the laughter each time I try to introduce myself to people in Wolof.

The past first week in Sebikotane has been, as was to be expected, a never-ending exercise in greeting people. Every time I leave the house in company of a host sister, off to buy vegetables, spices and mysterious sachets of artificial flavoring (tomato powder?!!) for lunch, or with my host mother in the evening, off to a town meeting perhaps, or just for a walk, we greet nearly every person we pass – woman selling vegetables or fish, elderly men dressed in long boubous fingering prayer beads. Whoever I am with will undoubtedly know the name of each person we pass, and will tell me them as well as how they are related to our family (my husband’s sister’s daughter, my mother’s sister’s brother in law…although this is all in wolof so I rarely understand). The most important part of greeting I’ve found is repeating the person’s name, especially the last name if you are greeting an elder. My host mother, Anna Bengue, a well respected and known member of the Sebikotane community (she is very involved in the town government and women’s organizations) shuffles slowly though the sand, big purple boubou flowing, acknowledging each person as she passes by murmuring their names. It turns into a sort of low, murmuring chant, as her name is repeated in response. They might throw in a few phrases like nanga def, mangi fi, ana wa ker ga, nunga fa, yangi santi yallah, alxamdoulilay, jamm rekk (how are you doing, I am here, how is your family, they are there, are you thanking god, thanks be to god, peace only) but these aren’t really questions – its really just a way of acknowledging  people, I’ve come to realize, and I think it a perfect representation of the importance of community here in Senegal, especially in a town setting like Sebikotane.

Its also pretty tricky to figure out who is actually a part of my family because almost every older man is introduced as a father, and every little kid as a son or daughter. He’s your father too, they say. Work and food are shared constantly. People live, eat, drink tea, do laundry, steel water in eachother’s homes. People are constantly coming into my house to pick up a plate of food or a bucket of laundry. They greet me, Adja Ndoye namga def, and I know I’ve seen them before but obviously I struggle to remember all the new names. Maybe I’ll secretly start writing them down, because this name remembering thing, maybe one of the hardest parts, is one of the most important to being able to interact with people and show respect in this community.

But the really interesting thing is that even if these people hadn’t spent their entire lives living in proximity, the “network” of last names in Senegal means that people who may have never met each other before in their lives have something in common. I have no idea how many last names exist, but basically its a finite number (lets just say there are 100) and people will often recognize last names when they hear them. Fall, Diop, Diallo, and Ba and are few examples of common ones. You could kind of think of last names as tribal names, because many of them are related in groups of “name-sake joking cousins.” So if you ever happen to meet someone with a last name related to your own, it is absolutely expected that you start to insult them (jokingly) about how much rice they eat, or how this person who have never met before in your life should be your slave. Its a perfect icebreaker. I find it both absolutely fascinating and bizarre. My host mother has already given me a long list of names to memorize, so that I’ll know when I meet one of the enemies, and I plan to ask her again so I am prepared.

I chose this topic because of its importance at this particular period of my experience here in Sebikotane. There is so much else I’d like to share but internet access here is going to be more limited so blog posts will probably be less regular. My family already makes fun of how much I write (in my journal) and the kids especially find it fascinating. My apprenticeship placement is going to be in an elementary school, and one of my first observations, before I’ve even entered a classroom, is that eight-year-old girls (or the few that I’ve met so far) still don’t know how to write their names. But they love to try when you help them.

Gaya Morris